N. Korea offers evidence to rebut uranium claims, undermining U.S. finding

( LatWp ) - North Korea is providing evidence to the United States aimed at proving that it never intended to produce highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons, undermining a key U.S. intelligence finding, South Korean and U.S. officials said this week.

In closely held talks, the North Korean government has granted U.S. experts access to equipment and documents to make its case, in preparation for declaring the extent of its nuclear activities before the end of the year. North Korean officials hope the United States will simultaneously lift sanctions against Pyongyang when the declaration is made.

If North Korea successfully demonstrates that U.S. accusations about the uranium-enrichment program are wrong, it will be a blow to U.S. intelligence and the Bush administration's credibility.

The U.S. charges of a large-scale uranium program led to the collapse of a Clinton-era agreement that had frozen a North Korean reactor that produced a different nuclear substance - plutonium. The move freed North Korea to use the plutonium route toward gathering the material needed for a nuclear weapon. Pyongyang conducted its first nuclear test last year, detonating a plutonium-based device, and has built a plutonium stockpile that experts estimate could yield eight to 10 nuclear weapons.

"They have shown us some things, and we are working it through," a senior U.S. official said Friday, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the talks are confidential. "We are having a discussion about things. Some explanations make sense; some are a bit of a stretch."

"This is now in the process of being clarified," a senior South Korean official said in an interview. "The North Koreans are now ready to prove that they did not intend to make a uranium-enrichment program by importing some materials."

He said North Korea is attempting to show that the materials it imported - including 150 tons of aluminum tubes from Russia in June 2002 - were intended for conventional weapons programs and other dual-use projects, not for weapons of mass destruction.

The South Korean official said North Korea's efforts mark an important shift. "In the past, North Korea simply said no," he said. "Now they are trying to convince us."

U.S. intelligence first concluded in July 2002 that North Korea had embarked on a large-scale program to produce highly enriched uranium for use in weapons, saying it was constructing a facility that would be fully operational by 2005. "We discovered that, contrary to an agreement they had with the United States, they're enriching uranium, with a desire of developing a weapon," President Bush said in a November 2002 news conference.

U.S. officials also have asserted that a senior North Korean official admitted to the program in an October 2002 meeting in Pyongyang between officials from both nations. North Korea later denied that any such admission took place.

After the administration accused Pyongyang of violating a 1994 agreement struck with President Clinton to freeze its plutonium facilities, North Korea ejected U.N. inspectors from the country and restarted its plutonium reactor, allowing it to stockpile its weapons-grade material.

For years afterward, during the impasse over North Korea's nuclear ambitions, the Bush administration insisted that North Korea admit to the uranium facility, rejecting arguments from other nations that it was more important to freeze the plutonium facility in order to halt the nation's production. After North Korea tested the nuclear device, the administration agreed to a deal in which Pyongyang froze and then disabled the plutonium facility in exchange for international aid.

Plutonium and highly enriched uranium provide different routes to building nuclear weapons. The North Koreans were able to reprocess 8,000 spent fuel rods - which had been held in a cooling pond and monitored by U.N. inspectors under the 1994 agreement - to acquire the weapons-grade plutonium. A uranium program would have required Pyongyang to build a facility with thousands of centrifuges to obtain the highly enriched uranium needed for a weapon. Iran's nuclear program, which the United States alleges is intended for weapons, involves enriched uranium.

The administration this year began to back off its earlier claims that North Korea has an active program to enrich uranium. In February, the chief U.S. intelligence officer for North Korea, Joseph DeTrani, told Congress that while there is "high confidence" that North Korea acquired materials that could be used in a "production-scale" uranium program, there is only "mid-confidence" that such a program exists.

David Albright, a former U.N. inspector and president of the Institute for Science and International Security, wrote in a report this year that there is "ample evidence" that North Korea was trying to put together a small-scale research program involving a few dozen centrifuges but that claims of a large-scale effort were flawed.

Albright said Friday that the tubes acquired by North Korea needed to be cut in half and shaped in order to be used as the outer casings of centrifuges. If Pyongyang proves that the tubes were untouched, he said, it could "shatter the argument" that they were meant for a uranium program.

But Albright said it is difficult to see how North Korea could explain away a set of centrifuges that Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf said a Pakistani nuclear-smuggling network provided to Pyongyang. "I think the North Koreans are making a big mistake" if they deny they had any interest in uranium enrichment, he said. "They are going to create a lot of trouble if they stick to this."

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